There are many ways to deal with hardship.
By and large, people are pretty resilient, and when times get tough they find things to help them cope.
Especially in war.
Clinging to a religious faith (or just a more general sense of hope), strengthening family bonds, enjoying the little pleasures, or celebrating the smallest of victories – all these techniques can be effective at getting people through.
And it’s not just about physical survival, as Dame Patricia Routledge and Piers Lane demonstrate at Horsham’s Capitol. The arts are very important too, lifting the burden of day-to-day struggles, filling people with inner joy when they live in bleak circumstances and helping them keep their souls and spirits intact.
This is the main theme of Admission One Shilling, which tells the straightforward yet powerful story of Dame Julia Myra Hess and her Second World War concerts.
With the support of Sir Kenneth Clark, this British pianist offered a series of lunchtime performances at the National Gallery in London, offering people of every social class the chance to hear Brahms, Schumann, Beethoven, Chopin and more, played live on a Steinway grand from 1939 to 1946. String quartets and singers also joined in the fun.
The shows were, as Myra and her enthusiastic crowds felt, a form of spiritual nourishment, and she and her fellow musicians performed as often as they could, even playing while bombs were falling on the capital.
In fact, in one amusing moment in this production, Myra remembers covering the sound of a ‘doodlebug’ bomb by striking the keys as hard as possible, creating a rather unnecessary crescendo. Absorbed in the music, nobody in the audience realised what had happened.
Admission One Shilling offers a kind of tribute show, but one with a decidedly more reserved tone than the pop and rock extravaganzas we usually get. It has an interest in substance over spectacle, treading a line between musical entertainment and social history lesson to celebrate the courage of artists and ordinary folk in wartime Britain.
Dame Patricia performs as Dame Myra, recounting various witty anecdotes from the pianist’s life and giving her audience clear mental images of the ‘great adventure’ of these lunchtime concerts. Remaining seated throughout the show, it’s a somewhat laid-back performance from the stage and screen star. But it’s still highly effective at conveying the kind of person Myra Hess was – compassionate, strong, stubborn, funny and talented.
Also performing as Dame Myra, in a sense, is the brilliant international pianist Piers Lane who provides short yet stunning piano pieces in between (and sometimes during) Myra’s various tales and observations. This reviewer, much like the average listener at one of the National Gallery concerts, isn’t that familiar with classical music and can’t really appraise the works in the correct terms. However, I can say that each and every piece is delivered with incredible sensitivity or intensity, as well as impeccable precision regardless of the tempo. Combined with evocative black and white photos, which are projected onto a screen behind the performers, the music gives a real sense of what attending one of these shows must have been like.
The pieces are varied too, sometimes wistful, sometimes dark or joyous or romantic, hinting at the multitude of emotions that would have been felt in that odd classical music venue during those six years.
The heavenly and instantly recognisable ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ by Bach (transcribed for piano by Myra Hess in 1926) provides a beautiful conclusion to the production.
As Dame Myra looks back with pride on her unique experience and service, we feel her immense achievement, a sense of a life well lived and a job well done.
The audience responds to the show with a huge round of applause.
And when Dame Patricia and Piers Lane stand to accept it, they make a point of taking one of their bows to the picture of Myra in the background.
When they do so, the applause gets noticeably louder.
Admission One Shilling was a Horsham District Year of Culture 2019 event. To find out more about the year-long programme of shows visit www.hdculture2019.co.uk.
Jeremy Vine makes sense of the world in East Grinstead. Click here to read more.